By Aysu Bicer
AMMAN (AA) - In the far northwest of Jordan, along the borders of Syria and Israel, lies Umm Qais, an ancient Roman town which is home to the ancient ruins of the Greek city of Gadara.
The town is just three hours away from the Syrian capital Damascus, and its proximity to the Golan Heights, the strategic, politically contested rocky plateau in southwestern Syria, begs belief.
You look outside the window of the car you are riding in to see the Golan Heights and tell yourself, "I thought this was a war zone,” aware that Israel occupies the Golan, though it is internationally recognized as belonging to Syria.
It's shocking to see that life goes on and how many people this place is home to. Indeed, there are no visible signs of war in this town, as it is apparently separated from the battle zones, and it is unscarred from any ongoing military operation nearby.
Yet Umm Qais has certainly escaped the attention of most tourists due to misleading travel advisories painting northern Jordan as a dangerous place.
"Umm Qais is considered a secondary tourism site that tourists rarely visit, or even if they visit, rarely spend more than two hours," said Muna Haddad, an Amman-based social entrepreneur and the head of Baraka, a consulting firm specializing in sustainable tourism.
According to her, the stories being told via tourism in Jordan focus on ancient civilizations but neglect the locals living here today.
"So through a project, we wanted to build a bridge between them," she said, adding that the locals are also telling the story of Umm Qais.
-Sustainable better for locals
Sustainable tourism can stimulate economic growth while conserving and protecting the cultural heritage and natural resources. This is what Baraka’s community-based project, launched in 2015, aims for, she said.
"We partnered with the local community to provide tourism products and experiences clustered around tourists to help them stay up to three days in Umm Qais," she noted.
From her experience consulting on dozens of tourism development projects, she said she encountered many local communities desperate to woo tourists, but without success, even with support from development agencies’ micro investments.
"Families of seven are common in the town, and they’re often backed by a single income, mostly from welfare or low-paying state jobs," she said.
But sustainable tourism, she explained, would provide them with experiences that provide a needed source of local income as well as a worthwhile cultural exchange.
"We have a policy of hiring and sourcing locally as much as possible to ensure that the money stays in the community," she said, noting that under the project, 73% of the revenue generated remains within the local area, in contrast to global community-based tourism models, where only 16% trickles down to locals.
She added that there are 130 people -- around 30 families -- in the village that work for the Baraka project, and the villagers make 44% more than the average income locally.
"And you should see the pride people have. They walk with confidence, and are proud of themselves," she said.
She also believes that if done conscientiously, tourism projects all around the world could contribute to countries’ local economies.
- Local stories
Exploring the ruins of Umm Qais with Ahmed Al Omari, a guide who was born and grew up in the town, and has been working with the project since its start, said the project changed the way he does his job.
"We got trained through the project, how to do things differently, how to behave and talk with tourists. These are things we didn’t know before," he added.
He said the people of Umm Qais own and run a variety of local businesses, including homemade food, beekeeping, hiking, biking, and a recent seed bomb initiative, involving a variety of seeds rolled into a ball of clay with nutrients, and then thrown or dropped into nature to introduce diversity.
Recalling a plant she found half dead when she was a girl, just 11 years old, Wijdan Mousa, who got involved in the project last year, said she took it and replanted it.
Since childhood she has been planting, and her love for what she does is obvious from the look in her eyes.
"I never thought it would be an actual home business," Wijdan said, adding that receiving a $3,500 grant through the project helped her dream come true.
With this “seed” money she was able to build a build bigger greenhouse and got training from a planting specialist who taught her how to plant more efficiently.
She also developed experience with making seed bombs for tourists visiting the village, giving them lessons in planting and then selling them the plant-based bombs.
She saw her dream came true when she wrote the name of her business on the wall of her house, she added.
Yousef Sayah, who has been a beekeeper for the last 20 years, has been involved in the project since the very beginning, and now tells eager tourists fascinating stories of the life of bees.
Now he sells his honey wares to an expanding customer base from such outlets as museums and local bed and breakfasts, thus expanding his earnings.
He also started learning English after getting involved in the project, meaning thanks to the project, he has a chance to learn about new cultures, ensuring his own personal development.
Tourism is a long-term driver of economic growth in Jordan, making up the largest slice of the country's economy, and the project feeds into the 2017-2021 National Tourism Strategy, which aims at fostering the sector at the local level.